Admit it, at one point or another in your life, you've indulged in the fantasy that suddenly, in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable day, you and everyone around you would burst into a perfectly choreographed song and dance number. Okay, maybe you haven't, but the emergence of flash-mobs around the world -- The Sound of Music in an Antwerp train station, Michael Jackson in Stockholm, and "Single Ladies" in London's Piccadilly Circus -- are a testament to the almost universal appeal of the musical.
Once upon a time, the musical was the reigning format in popular film. From the moment that technology made it possible to synchronize a film with a soundtrack, musicals dominated studio offerings, beginning with The Jazz Singer in 1927 -- the first "talkie" and the first musical film -- and continuing well through the 1950s. Then rock n' roll came along and changed all that, as taste in popular music began to diverge from the more traditional numbers in musical films. Production took a nosedive: 65 musical films were produced in 1943, compared with just 4 in 1963.
What happened after the popularity of the genre died off is the subject of a film series this month at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, entitled The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture. The curator of the series, Steve Seid, says that beginning in the sixties, "rowdier scores appeared, along with pop storylines and an attitude that reflected current culture... the musical became a medium of contemporary kid-culled values."
The ten films selected are variations on a theme: sticking it to "the Man." Whether it's Officer Krupke in West Side Story or Professor Hill trying to shut down River City's pool hall in The Music Man ('cause that place is Trouble: "with a capital T and that rhymes with P and the stand for Pool! That game with the 15 numbered balls is the Devil's tool!"), the selections articulate a tension between the older generation and the younger one.
The series kicks off January 31 with Paint Your Wagon, the 1969 musical featuring Clint Eastwood in a Gold Rush boom-town -- and a polyamorous relationship -- (the trailer trumpets the tagline: "Based on the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical about a lusty group of people who one day looked civilization in the eye... and spit!").
The films are arranged in order of era depicted and run through the '90s, with some selections that prove studios eventually found ways to integrate pop music into film, with Pink Floyd The Wall, a tap-dancing David Bowie in Absolute Beginners, and Talking Heads' David Byrne in True Stories. Trailblazers, all of them, laying the groundwork for a genre-revival... so now we can all enjoy Glee.
The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture begins January 31, 2010 with Paint Your Wagon, and will wrap-up February 28 with Fruit Fly. For tickets and information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.